Category Archives: Poetry

Three Basic Poetry Mistakes

First of all, happy New Year! Glad to see we all made it through the infamous December 21st alive.

Anywho, on to poetry.

This is not an in-depth post about metaphor, symbolism, diction, whatever – this is just a list of things that will immediately turn an agent away from your poetry. In fact, these problems can even turn other writers from giving you an in-depth critique of your poem.

Lack of capitalization. Okay, I know e.e.cummings is famous for this – so famous, in fact, that we don’t even capitalize his name (it just looks weird) – but you are not e.e.cummings. You’re not. You might boast to your friends, your critics, your potential agents, that you are the next e.e.cummings – but if you’re just starting out, you need to stick to tradition. You can’t break the rules until you’ve learned the rules, as the saying goes, and if you look at all the masters who are famous for breaking the rules, you’ll see that that’s true. Picasso painted portraits and landscapes. Lady Gaga was trained classically. And e.e.cummings used capital letters.

Poor grammar and spelling. Spelling is self-explanatory, so let’s turn to grammar. The most common mistake I see in poetry is with comma use. For some reason, many people feel a need to put a comma after each line, whether it’s necessary or not, like so:

The trees in the wind,

were so beautiful.

To some people, this will look alright. But it’s not alright. It is evil. It is the bane of Elizabeth. (Okay, maybe that was a bit melodramatic.) Fortunately, there’s an easy way to remedy this problem. What I usually suggest to people is to rewrite their poetry as prose, like this:

The trees in the wind, were so beautiful.

Now pretty much anyone can see that the comma in question does not belong, delete it, and rewrite these lines correctly.

The trees in the wind

were so beautiful.

Vague language. The lines above were obviously terrible, but there was a point to my using terrible lines. Not only did the previously misuse a comma, but they also use vague language. Let’s have them one more time, shall we?

The trees in the wind

were so beautiful.

Urgh. Doesn’t inspiring further reading, does it? For one thing, “trees” and “wind” are both common, all-encompassing words that don’t make me want to read on, but today let’s focus more on “so beautiful.” It’s horribly vague language that really gives you no mental image at all, even though “beautiful” is a commonly used adjective.

What does it mean to say that someone is beautiful? Yes, the first question your friends will ask about that girl you met in the mall is probably, “Was she hot?” and you’ll probably say, “Yes,” but what does this really mean? Does your definition of beauty match that of your friends? And even if it does, there’s probably more than one type of person that you would consider beautiful. The girl was beautiful, but you like blondes and brunettes, blue eyes and brown eyes, so what did she actually look like?

It would be better to say – in poetry as in prose – that the girl in question had a clear-skinned, fine-featured face with high cheekbones and blue eyes with dark lashes and dark hair that curled around her shoulders.

Of course, if you actually say that to your buddies at the mall, they’ll just look at you blankly (unless they’re also writers), but for both prose and poetry, this is much better than “beautiful.” I think it’s almost more important to use concrete language in poetry than in prose – because prose tells a story, making it inherently a little interesting by virtue of plot and character, even if the manner of telling isn’t great. But poetry often taps into deep emotions, abstract concepts like “love” and “honor” and “freedom,” all of which are fine things but really boring to read about unless you put them in terms of concrete images.

But that’s a topic for a different post.

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